It is easy to sing the praises of Theo Epstein after his recruits fill out the respective All-Star squads, and I take nothing away from him
But I’ll give Dave Dombrowski plaudits before the Red Sox have played a single game in the second half. He saw the needs; he made the moves. The holes on the pitching staff are plugged and the bench is replete with role-players.
Reliable starting pitcher? Drew Pomeranz- check
Late-innings/ closing pitcher? Brad Ziegler- check
Power hitting infielder? Aaron Hill – check
Bolstering catching corps? Sandy DeLeon retained.
For two years the Red Sox brooded over their reclamation projects: Clay Buchholz, Joe Kelly, Pablo Sandoval, Jackie Bradley Jr., waiting for them to rejuvenate. Only Jackie Bradley Jr. proved worth the wait, and I’ll admit I had given up on him. Patience may be rewarded, but it has seldom vindicated Red Sox general managers. Last year at this time the Red Sox were sellers and believers in redemption of starting pitching. In the fall came Dombroski and regime change.
Dombrowski was not patient. He brought his wheelbarrow of cash to woo David Price, and he sacrificed a valuable Minor League prospect to land another lefty: Drew Pomeranz. It may be easy to second guess these moves, but I, for one, will not wait for the end of the season to use 20-20 hindsight. I am delighted for an impatient general manager who sees a pennant within his grasp and reaches for it.
I’ll make some predictions which I think will vindicate Dave Dombrowski and make Sox fans forget Theo Epstein.
- David Price will have a sizzling second half and win twenty games or more.
- Steven Wright be a little less consistent, but still finish with 17-18 wins
- Drew Pomeranz will suffer a little in the American League East, but he will still win 12-14 games
- Rick Porcello will continue to give up gopher balls, but he will also pitch brilliantly enough to match Steven Wright
- Eduardo Rodriguez will finally get his act together and substitute for either Pomeranz or Porcello one of whom will hit the disabled list by September.
- Hanley Ramirez will hit 20 homers in the second half
- David Ortiz will get hurt before September, but return for the playoffs.
- Pedroia will get hurt in August and be replaced by Brock Holt. Never sure how long Pedey will recuperate, but he will probably return before he’s ready.
- Top clutch hitters in the second half will be Betts, Ramirez and Aaron Hill, because Ortiz will be walked more than ever.
- Brad Ziegler will be the closer until Kimbrel returns.
- Setting up will be Ross, Barnes, and Uhehara. Bucholz will be traded for a good middle innings pitcher. Tazawa will be a slow comeback.
I don’t know who else will deepen the Red Sox bench, but I know Dombrowski will not be waiting for 2017 to win a World Series. That’s why I like him.
To give proper credit, last night’s win over Texas was an example of a game the Red Sox used to lose. It’s a good sign that they can win in Texas at all, but to bust their bullpen with such an outburst shows the fight in a team that used to lay down in the 8th and 9th innings. Bravo to third-string catcher Sandy DeLeon for leading the charge.
But in the long view, the Red Sox need more consistency against upper division teams like the Rangers and the Orioles, who usually have their number. Both of these teams show disrespect for the first-pitch strike that the Red Sox regard as a treaty with their foes. Both pitchers and hitters on the Red Sox tend to sit out the first pitch, as if no one expects a serious swing at it. With certain teams this strategy is fatal, and with most teams it puts the Red Sox hitters down in the count before they get the bat off their shoulders.
Among the hitters Mookie Betts is the exception, because he never gets into a rhythm of taking any pitches. He comes up hacking, unless he needs a look at the pitcher first. But as you go to the heart of the order, Pedroia, Bogaerts, Ortiz, Shaw, these batters start with their bats on their shoulders, and pitchers take advantage of them. Obviously some of them are adept at hitting late in the count, but many pitchers get the upper hand by putting hitters behind, and these pitchers beat the Red Sox. Each of these hitters in the heart of the order swing at bad third strikes once they get two strikcs down, because they have to protect the plate.
The pitchers are worse, because they lay out their first pitches assuming they are getting a freebie. Price, Porcello, and Rodriguez are often guilty of this, because they are trying to get ahead of batters, as they should. How many of their first-pitch strikes have ended up in the bullpen? I don’t have the stats, but my impression is they are being beaten by aggressive hitters, who know it is fatal to get behind them. It is sad to see these pitchers watch their first pitch sail over their heads as if thinking, You weren’t supposed to swing at that one. There is no diplomatic agreement that protects the first pitch in baseball.
Clearly this strategy comes and goes, because if you make assumptions about the first pitch, other teams will adjust to it and pitch and swing accordingly. But what I see right now is pitchers getting ahead of Red Sox batters, and hitters taking advantage of Red Sox pitchers’ predictability. The Sox pitchers are too aggressive in the count, and the Red Sox hitters are not aggressive enough. You see this most painfully with the Orioles, who bash the Red Sox regularly with the home run, and quickly put their hitters behind in the count.
Good baseball teams are strategic, not predictable. In May the Red Sox were strategic; in June they have been predictable. It’s time to shake-up the strategy of the first-pitch strike. John Farrell, wake up the sleepers, who thought they had the formula for winning.
David Ortiz with a walk-off home run, a familiar and dramatic tune for Red Sox victories. But it is not the real theme song for the new Red Sox. Three innings of shut-down relief pitching is.
It’s fun to re-live the days of yore when Papi drove in the late inning runs to seal a Red Sox victory, but it is not what the Red Sox do best today. After the first game blowout, the Texas series settled down into the battle of the bullpens: Texas won game 2 and Boston won game 3. That could well describe the pattern for success in 2013.
Before Michael Kirkman’s flat delivery the Rangers had solved Big Papi with inside stuff from their potent left-handers. In his previous two at-bats, Ortiz left runners on base in scoring position. The Rangers had every right to believe he would strand them again. But—stuff happens.
A strong bullpen depends on “stuff” not happening in the late innings. The Texas bullpen avoided the stuff in Game 2 and the Red Sox bullpen avoided the stuff in Game 3. Koje Uhehara allowed the game-winning double in the middle game of the series, but shut down Texas with style in the final game.
The Red Sox offense, on the other hand, left runners on base in every inning of the third game, revealing their weakness in situational hitting. What happened in game one was a freak of baseball, setting all kinds of Texas records for defensive futility. That is not what to expect in future meetings of these teams. The same could be said of games with the White Sox, the Orioles and the Yankees, all of whom play the Sox tough.
If we are now seriously considering the Red Sox as pennant contenders ( who actually said that in Spring Training?), then we can gauge their progress by the consistency of their bullpen. The starting rotation is as good as any and the hitting is good for getting runners on base. But the fate of this team in the late innings seems to hang on its bullpen.
The walk-off heroes of the future are named Uhehara, Tazawa, Miller and Bailey. If they can avoid the “stuff” of late innings, the Red Sox will contend.